We take for granted that compassion is a natural response to the suffering of those who are ill. But compassion was not well-developed as a virtue in Roman culture. Rome had not developed a culture of compassion; “mercy was discouraged, as it only helped those too weak to contribute to society.” Family members may come to one’s aid, and the wealthy could afford physicians, but “the common folk were often left to rely on folk healers and sellers of herbs, amulets and quack remedies.” *
“If a father decided that the family couldn’t afford another child, that child would be abandoned to the steps of a temple or in the public square. Female infants were exposed much more often than males.” These attitudes and practices are still with us today. In India and China the practice of aborting female offspring is distressingly common. In many parts of the world the handicapped are treated with disdain or neglect.
“The classic world possessed no religious or philosophical basis for the concept of the divine dignity of human persons, and without such support, the right to live was granted or withheld by family or society almost at a whim.”
What made the difference between attitudes then and now? At least in many parts of the world today, human rights and dignity are considered absolutely fundamental (and they are!). Where then did these more ‘progressive’ beliefs come from? The new ‘era’ in Roman healthcare came from the least likely place: from a new, small and persecuted culture which penetrated the classic Roman world: the culture of the Christians.
Despite a series of ten devastating persecutions, beginning with Nero in AD 64, Christians “carried on an active ministry of philanthropy which included the care of the sick. Far from the stereotype of shriveled ascetics who hated the body, early Christians valued the body and the medical arts necessary to heal it as good gifts from God.”
“James defines “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” in part as caring for ‘orphans and widows’ (James 1:27) — biblical shorthand for all those without protectors and in need. Christian theology thus birthed a personal and corporate charity which surpassing any previously known. Church leadership encouraged all Christians to visit the sick and help the poor, and each congregation also established an organized ministry of mercy.”
How different this is from our practices today! How often we are concerned about ourselves without hearing the Lord’s commands to love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves.
“A devastating epidemic began in 250 AD and spread across northern Africa to the Western Empire. It lasted 15 to 20 years, and at one point in Rome 5,000 people died in one day. Beyond offering supplications to the gods for relief, public officials did nothing to prevent the spread of the disease, treat the sick, or bury the dead. This is not surprising, since the pagans believed that nothing effective could be done in a time of plague other than appeasing the gods.” However in places like Carthage, north Africa, where the plague swept in with force, the Bishop Cyprian “encouraged Christians to donate funds and volunteer their service for relief efforts, making no distinction between believers and pagans.” They continued these organized emergency relief efforts for five years.
“The ministry of medical care in early Christianity began as a church-based diaconal, not a professional, ministry. It was provided by unskilled, ordinary people with no medical training. Yet the church created in the first two centuries of its existence the only organization in the Roman world that systematically cared for its destitute sick.”
This is not a secret we want to keep from believers around the world today. From Syria to Thailand, believers are caring for those who are marginalized and ill. But sometimes I fear we forget our history, and we forget God’s command to love our neighbor. Medical missions are a wonderful calling and ministry. But as we go about it we must not ‘overly professionalize’ ministry to those who are sick and brokenhearted. Unskilled believers ushered in a new era of healthcare in the Roman empire. We have the opportunity to do the same among multiplied countries around the world, demonstrating goodness and grace of God, and the dignity of men and women created in His image. This can be done only as professionals work together with non-medical professionals to care for the needs around them, especially those who are least able to help themselves.
Despite the cost, let’s help usher in a new era of healthcare around the world.
*Quotations are from “Christian History, Healthcare and Hospitals in the mission of the church,” Issue 101, pages 6-12